More Levi!, or, Ethics and Truth
I think the last email clarified some things greatly for me in regard to why me and Levi continually butt heads. Also, for what its worth, I reread my past post, and I never said that ‘ethics precedes ontology and epistemology’. My position is a bit more complex, as explained below. But first, how we differ.
1. Truth: I don’t believe in it, and it seems he does. A philosopher who doesn’t believe in Truth?! Well of course! Ok, I believe in one truth, namely, that there is no truth. For Meillassoux, this is radical contingency [I originally said finitude, but Levi corrected me, and he’s totally right on that, I was tired!], and this is precisely what Badiou desribes as his faith in ‘the void’, which is included in every multiple, that which safeguards the infinite potential of thought, symbolized as ∅, his riff on the Lacanian Real. What’s odd to me is that I thought Levi would agree with me on this, for after all, if we go to the formulas of sexuation, it is the side of the Woman in which the ‘not all’ resides, and it is this not-all which prevents the closure of the phallic function. My sense is that past Goedel, Heisenberg, and Russell, we are left with either completeness or consistency, take your pick. This fundamental insight has occurred differently in different formations in different discourses, Derrida has a name for it, so does Lacan, etc. Either you ban paradox, or you work to integrate it within your system, what Luhman describes as ‘second order observation.’ I’m just surprised that Levi would say the following: “Flat ontology is a matter of how the world is. And if the claims of flat ontology are true, they are true whether or not we think positive or negative ethical consequences follow from these claims and even whether or not humans exist to make evaluations of such things.”
When it comes to science, I’m a Kuhnian, we always do science through paradigms. I’m not going to say, therefore, that medieval alchemy was more or less ‘true’ than contemporary science. Rather, there are other criteria of value which are more useful, ie: to what extent did it make its users happy, or efficacious in regard to their worlds (either inner or outer), etc. But truth? There’s no such thing! All is perspective. So, either everything is true, or nothing is. Which is NOT to say that everything is at the same level. Some things are better than others at achieving certain goals – implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious, etc. You can’t evaluate something’s ‘truth’ outside of its paradigm. Truth is a transcendent value that was the provincial domain of particular discourses in the West. It has no more universal validity than the Christian notion of god, no matter what the Christians might think.
Or, to put it another way, the phallic function is not all.
And yes, as Levi argues, putting ethics/politics before epistemology and ontology can lead to some DAMN sloppy and problematic thinking. But so can the reverse lead to dogmatic thinking. The trick, I think, is getting the balance right.
2. Ethics: I believe that there is no way to justify ontological or epistemological claims without using the language of value, and value always implies a politics, ethics, and aesthetics. Does this mean that ethics precedes ontology or epistemology? I think it is interimbricated with it. And ultimately, I believe that people will see what they want to see, even to the point of denying reality. Should philosophy do this? This is why I invoke Nietzsche here. The ‘will to truth’ for Nietzsche is linked to the desire for cruelty, and this is why, in his ‘Truth and Lies’ essay, he advocates not true and false, but degrees of lying. This is why Oscar Wilde is Nietzsche’s heir when he says “Those who tell the truth will one day be found out”, or Lacan, when he says, ‘Truth has the structure of a lie.” The question becomes, for any Nietzschian, the degree to which a truth furthers ‘life’. Now, a truth that is completely out of sync with the physical world can hardly benefit ‘life.’ But for Nietzsche, no truth is pure.
But isn’t SR all about the return of science, of realism?! Yes, of course! I’m not saying that quarks aren’t there. I’m just saying we can’t know the extent to which a quark, or any scientific object, is a social construction. That is, there’s realism here, but its always a dirty realism. This inability to distinguish impacts our ability to know, that is, if we define knowledge rigidly (the Lacanian phallic function as applied to science), but not our ability to act. This is why, for example, there have been massively divergent epistemological theories to describe quantum mechanics, but no disagreement on how to make it work. When science gives up the ghost on capital ‘T’ truth, as with philosophy, then both of them can get on with the business of making the world a bit clearer to us all, and perhaps, a bit more robust. Not ‘what does it mean?’, but ‘how does it work?’
That is, the belief that there is no truth is itself a truth, but one which aims to alter the shape or topology on which the game of truth is played, from that of true and false, to true and truer. Nietzsche argues we should move from good and evil to good and bad, and this is a move of the same type, and inspired by his approach to truth and lies. The question isn’t absolute truth or falsehood, but appropriateness to the needs of the situation. And as I’d argue in regard to the immanent structure of network ethics, robustness, namely, that which allows the system in question the maximum sustainable freedom in relation to the world.
3. Flat Ontology: I had no idea this was Levi’s idea! I thought he meant the other flat ontologies in the history of philosophy, ie: DeLanda, and I was under the impression that this term was generally applied to Deleuze’s desire to move from transcendent (ie: Kant) to transcendental. So, if there was confusion on whose flat ontology we were talking about, my bad.
Then again, if I wanted to push the issue, I’d be more than happy to tell Shakespeare that even though he didn’t know the Oedipus complex was lurking in his text, that this doesn’t make it less potentially so. Texts come at us, like symptoms, from the future. What Freud called Nachtraeglichkeit, Lacan ‘deferred action, and Zizek ‘the Back to the Future’ effect. Of course, now I’m just being difficult . . . point is, my sense is that this term is much wider than Levi’s usage, and so, if one is talking about Levi’s notion of flat ontology, that should perhaps be indicated some way, cause there are other flat models currently on the market. So, yeah, I had no idea this Levi was talking about his own usage of the term here.
4. The take home: So, if there’s a way to make an epistemological or ontological claim without using a value judgment (ie: good, bad, better, worse, holy, etc.), I’m all ears! But to me, these sorts of terms always imply ethics and politics. This is why I believe that ethics, politics, ontology, and epistemology are multiple aspects of any philosophical discourse, but let’s not reify these, for they each imply the other. Any system which claims to only pursue one of these has the others implicit, or by means of their reliance on other discourses for support, effectively therefore borrowing theirs.
Does that mean that ethics precedes the others? I think our motivations choose our commitments, not our belief in truth. I mean, in the middle ages, scientists bent over backwards to invent epicycles in an attempt to avoid in any way possible the need for a heliocentric universe. Don’t we all do something of the same?
I do think that any claim of epistemology or ontology describes the way we’d like to see the world, and this is about values. I’m not sure saying ethics comes first really captures this, its really a sloppy formulation for this, but one I might use in a pinch. Because really, I do believe that ethics, espistemology, ontology, politics, and aesthetics are co-constitutive. That’s the more careful formulation, for me.